Delta Means Change – 20 years of Delta Institute

The abandoned lot across the street sits empty littered with trash and debris. Sights like this are common as you travel around Midwestern communities. You’ve seen them and perhaps you’ve wondered – What used to be here? And how can we change it?

These plots of vacant land are called brownfields. A brownfield is a former industrial or commercial site (such as a dry cleaner or gas station) where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination.

Brownfields challenge communities as they remain stagnant, unable to evolve and grow with surrounding neighbors. A house can’t be built there, a school can’t be erected. Development cannot continue until the land is cleaned and restored; and their societal contribution cannot progress if this land is forgotten and left behind.

Some people see a brownfield and feel despair and nostalgia, while others like Delta Institute’s co-founders Donna Ducharme and Tim Brown see possibility and a new beginning. Their journey created the foundation of today’s Delta Institute – a nonprofit focused on solving complex environmental challenges throughout the Midwest.

Delta Institute was founded in 1998 shortly after Donna and Tim began working together on a public policy dialog around brownfield redevelopment. Through this Brownfield Forum, they saw inspiring cross industry collaboration and cooperation that provided a path for change and the future of brownfield redevelopment.

Donna and Tim were inspired and impressed by the Brownfield Forum’s interdisciplinary approach. As a result of the Forum, they changed Illinois’ law for redeveloping brownfield sites. The result of this inspirational work encouraged Tim and Donna to begin their journey to help communities and landscapes thrive.

Donna and Tim knew they wanted to create an organization focused on change that worked at the intersection of the environment and the economy. An organization that acted like a laboratory – one that is flexible, action-oriented, and creative. This approach lives on in Delta today as we are tasked with solving complex challenges that require an open-mind, collaborative spirit, and imaginative methodology.

After Tim and Donna’s brownfield success, their next environmental challenge to tackle was air quality, which was a challenge the entire region was dealing with.

Initially, Delta Institute was focused on the Great Lakes region due to all of the postindustrial problems and disinvestment. Today, Delta continues to focus on the Great Lakes region and throughout the Midwest.

Under Tim and Donna’s guidance, Delta Institute started a regional dialog to deal with Chicago’s smog caused by emissions from air pollution, such volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). They eventually shaped ten strategies that could be used to reduce emissions and created a campaign called Clean Air Counts. At the time, their ambitious goal was to reduce emissions by 5 tons a day – a goal that the collaboration eventually exceeded.

Through Delta Institute’s work on Clean Air Counts, Tim, Donna, and the Delta staff built vital relationships. In fact, Delta’s long-standing relationship with the Merchandise Mart began as a result of this crucial campaign. Building managers at the Mart learned to analyze their emissions, and eventually the behemoth building, which is the size of two city blocks, graduated to be one of the biggest LEED certified buildings in the world today.

Twenty years into Delta Institute’s journey, we continue to successfully bring people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the table to implement concrete, sustainable change at the intersection of the environment and the economy. The initial dream of Tim and Donna’s work continues to inspire and propel Delta Institute and our partners forward.

From the beginning, our ambitious co-founders strove to test, learn, and grow new ideas to engage and activate others. We’ve been able to advance and disseminate their best practices to ensure that no person or place is left behind and that real change is made. We look forward to our next twenty years of impact in the Midwest.

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